To Make Better Hires, Turn Up the Pressure

January / 2021
Authors: Dr. Josh Cotton, George Randle and Mike Sarraille

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

Everyone can put up a good-looking facade when things are easy, but who cares how people act when they win? What happens when things don’t work out the way they expect?

In Special Operations, the assessment and selection process is designed to pressure-test candidates, because under pressure, an individual’s true behavior comes out. Adversity doesn’t just build character; it reveals it. 

In Navy SEAL selection and training, for instance, the instructors use physical challenges to push students to the limit. Though the challenges are physical, what they’re testing is mental: students’ character, including drive and resiliency.

Obviously, companies are not going to put job candidates through an intensive, physically challenging, months-long selection and training program like in Special Operations. Though the tactics you use will be different, the strategy is the same: to reveal candidates’ character and make better hires, you need to turn up the pressure. There are several ways you can do this in the interviewing process.

Scenario-Based and Behavioral Questions

One of the simplest ways to pressure-test candidates is to use scenario-based and behavioral questions. A scenario-based question involves asking the candidate about how they would handle a hypothetical situation: “Given this scenario, what would you do?” A behavioral question is one that asks about how they handled a past experience: “Tell me about a time you did x.”

You likely already use these questions in your interview process. To turn them into a pressure-test, simply ask about high-pressure or stressful situations, and make sure the questions reflect the job environment they would be working in. Use real-life scenarios from your company and have them walk you through how they would handle it.

Additionally, try to ask questions that don’t have a clear “right” solution. While the candidate’s answer itself is important, even more important is how the candidate reaches the answer. What is their decision-making process? How do they approach the problem, and what do they prioritize?

This is something instructors do in Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection. They place students in a complex, uncertain, challenging environment and then present them with problems without clear solutions. That way, it’s less about the solution itself, and more about how the students go about finding a solution. It’s in the problem-solving process that you see character.

Practical Challenges

Scenario-based and behavioral questions reveal the ideal reaction of a candidate—what they believe they should do in a stressful situation. To see how the candidate would actually act, you need to provide practical challenges.

A practical challenge is any exercise where the candidate must do something. This lets you see candidates in action in a high-pressure situation (a job interview). 

Challenges come in a wide range, but should reflect the duties of the job. You may ask a candidate to prepare a writing sample or to give a presentation on a topic they’re unfamiliar with. One of the most well-known challenges for salespeople is to hand them an object—like a pen—and ask them to sell it to you. 

One of the best types of challenge—and one used in Special Operations—is a case study. These are standardized written fictional scenarios that range in complexity, depending on how much time you want to give to the candidate. If the candidate has fifteen minutes of prep time, the case study should be short. If they have a week’s notice, then the case study will probably be several pages long and include charts and data and will require a twenty-minute or more presentation on the day of the final round of interviews.

In these challenges, focus on the candidates’ thought processes, the way they deal with time-constraint stress, and their ability to clearly, concisely, and confidently communicate. Don’t get hung up on minor technical or process errors, as these are things you can train the candidate in after hiring.

Challenges are a particularly important strategy of pressure-testing because they give you a sneak peek at how the candidate would perform in the role.

Pushing Candidates Outside Their Comfort Zone

If a candidate will be working in an environment that requires them to be cool, calm, and collected (which is every business environment), then you need to make sure that they don’t get flustered by the unknown and uncomfortable. You can test that by pushing them out of their comfort zone.

Candidates—good ones, at least—will prepare answers ahead of time for traditional interview questions. This is their comfort zone. By asking them unexpected, nontraditional questions, you can knock them off balance and force them to think about something other than what they came to do, which is sell themselves.

Two of our favorite unexpected questions are:

  • “Who would you hire for this role other than yourself, and why?”
  • “If you were to gather your best friends—the ones you’d trust to erase your phone in the event of your demise—what would that group unanimously say is their pet peeve about you?” 

Questions like this allow you to assess how a candidate operates under stress, as well as evaluate their authenticity and integrity.

Another strategy is to delve into any red flags the candidate has shown. People typically don’t like talking about their weak areas, but it’s a great way to gain insight into their character. There’s a twofold benefit here: you determine the strength and validity of any red flags, and you see how the candidate acts under pressure.

If hired, a candidate will likely need to operate outside their comfort zone in the course of the job, so you want to know ahead of time how they will handle that.

Hire Good Employees, Not Good Interviewers

All too often, people make the mistake of hiring someone who can interview well. That’s not always the same thing as someone who will be great on the job.

By tailoring your interviews to reflect the realities of the work environment, you can better assess how a candidate will perform in the job. 

The strategies—scenario-based and behavioral questions, practical challenges, and pushing candidates outside their comfort zone—will stay the same, but the specific tactics you use will vary according to the demand of the role. In some cases, you might choose to use time constraints, or you might put candidates in a scenario where they have to work with others to solve a problem.

But no matter the role, the key to revealing a candidate’s potential is pressure testing.

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

George Randle is a Strategic Advisor to EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.